You have 3 years to sue over sex abuse in WA. This case could change that
Do you know what happened to you? Do you know you were the victim of a crime?
Survivors of sexual assault and human trafficking may only be able to answer these questions years or decades after the abuse occurred, experts say. But a clock is running. In Washington state, trafficking victims have just three years to seek civil compensation for the crimes and damage suffered. And then the door closes.
The time frame is among the shortest in the nation. Other states have lengthened the civil statutes of limitation for these crimes, but Washington hasn’t addressed them in two decades.
On Friday, a King County judge will determine whether Washington’s law should stand or if the limit should be suspended for three women who say they were sexually assaulted, beaten, confined and trafficked by Solomon “Raz” Simone, a Seattle hip-hop artist.
Simone’s motion is the latest attempt to dismiss the civil suit brought by the women, and two others who joined the case, after efforts to pursue criminal charges against him in Seattle were unsuccessful.
The women say he exploited them for years for profit, demanding $1,000 daily quotas from forced sex work in Seattle, Las Vegas, Portland and other cities. The alleged abuse spans a decade.
The motion raises the question of whether sexual assault victims have enough time to seek justice. And, if cases are dismissed, what recourse individuals have when both the criminal and civil systems fail to provide a remedy.
Simone denies the allegations against him and argues three of the four women who accused him of trafficking in an August 2021 suit filed the claim between six months and three years too late to be considered by a Washington court. The defense defined the start of the statute of limitations as when each woman’s relationship with Simone ended.
“Those claims were already dead when filed. … They cannot be saved,” Paul Beattie, Simone’s lawyer, wrote in his motion. Beattie argued that “Simone simply dated a series of attractive women, several of whom were already engaged in the sharing of nude pictures or exotic dancing.”
Some of the women had previously worked in strip clubs, according to records and interviews, but others had not worked in the sex industry before meeting Simone.
Simone, they said, paid for them to move to Seattle or Las Vegas, drove them to apply for exotic dancing licenses and forced them to enter sex work. Their relationships with Simone were not merely “dating,” all the women and their attorneys contend, but grounded in coercion and extreme control under the threat of violence, for Simone’s profit.
The women’s attorneys, Ellery Johannessen and Michelle Dellino, argue that the trauma inflicted by Simone was so significant, it prevented them from taking immediate legal action against him. Many of the women believed they had been in an abusive relationship with Simone but didn’t recognize the crimes and patterns of trafficking for months or years.
The crimes alleged in the lawsuit were also reported to the Seattle Police Department, according to public records, emails, text messages and hours of interviews with KUOW and The Seattle Times. In September, the lawsuit was amended to include the city of Seattle and the police department for their alleged negligent handling of their claims.
The city declined to comment on pending litigation.
Their day in court
Simone’s filing is one of four attempts so far to have defendants dismissed from the civil lawsuit.
In November, King County Superior Court Judge Melinda J. Young denied a motion brought by the city of Seattle to remove it and the Seattle Police Department as defendants. The city argued it could not be sued for negligent investigation. Young disagreed, saying that the city and police could be held liable, in part because police conduct may have caused “an escalation in vicious behavior” by Simone.
Motions to dismiss the lawsuit have also been filed by the owner of a strip club where one the women worked and by a business associate of Simone’s. None has been successful.
Even if Simone’s motion to dismiss is accepted, the case against the city, the SPD and the claims brought by one of the plaintiffs, which is within the statute of limitations, will move forward.
Johannessen and Dellino said in court documents that in courtrooms across the country, in cases involving high-profile abusers, some judges are allowing cases to move forward even after the statute of limitations has passed.
Nationally, the #MeToo movement and cases involving Catholic clergy, Boy Scouts and convicted abusers such as film producer Harvey Weinstein and financier Jeffrey Epstein have spurred new legislation and legal opinion on statutes of limitations laws.
King County court has the discretion to temporarily suspend the statute of limitations, the women’s attorneys wrote, “in light of the extreme trauma visited upon Plaintiffs, which prevented them from fully understanding what happened to them and advocating for themselves.”
The clock for the statute of limitations can also begin to run after criminal proceedings end. As KUOW and The Seattle Times reported in October, while King County prosecutors declined to file charges against Simone for trafficking in early 2022, the FBI had an open investigation into Simone, though no charges have been filed federally, either.
The plaintiff’s attorneys noted in court documents they have evidence that Simone purchased his Airport Way recording studio using money he collected from work done by at least one of the women named in the suit.
Beattie, Simone’s attorney, countered that the plaintiffs have no evidence and the argument is merely sensational and “politically charged,” claiming the women’s movement was intended to “free [women] to engage in the sexual relationships they choose.”
“Each had the willpower and presence of mind to end her consensual relationship with Solomon whenever she chose to do so, despite his allegedly Rasputin-like magical powers,” Beattie said in a reply to the plaintiffs.
“They do not get to have their day in court when they cannot be bothered to file their lawsuits on time,” he wrote.
The question of consent
Beattie’s arguments fail to account for the nature and nuance of trafficking crimes, according to experts for the plaintiffs in court documents.
Megan Lundstrom, a survivor of sex trafficking and co-founder of The Avery Center, a research and resource organization focused on helping those who have been trafficked, wrote in court records that it commonly takes three to five years after someone has left a trafficker to identify themselves as a victim of sex trafficking.
“Most attribute their ordeal to nothing more than a bad relationship and are faced with shame, guilt, isolation, and self-doubt,” Lundstrom wrote.
Lundstrom says sex-trafficking shares similarities with cults. In both cases, there is devotion to the group’s leader, a drive to make money and punishment for dissent. She said trauma bonds, the attachment of the victim to the abuser created through repeated patterns of psychological and emotional abuse, can delay a victim’s ability to escape the relationship.
Anita Teekah, senior director of the anti-trafficking program for Safe Horizon, a New York-based nonprofit, said in an interview with KUOW and The Seattle Times that many of the nonprofit’s clients initially deny they experienced trafficking or are unable to acknowledge they have been trafficked for years after they have escaped.
“For individuals who have a lot of trauma, if they can’t talk about what they’ve experienced, that means they can’t meaningfully” get help, she said.
Some courts and states have begun to acknowledge these factors in sexual abuse and trafficking cases.
In New York, following a federal criminal indictment for sex trafficking, 80 plaintiffs filed a civil suit in 2020 against Keith Raniere, the former leader of the so-called self-help group NXIVM.
Much of the federal case for both prosecutors and the defense hinged on the question of choice: Did the adults recruited into NXIVM participate with informed consent or were they coerced in a way that robbed them of that choice?
In October, Raniere was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to 120 years in federal prison.
Numerous civil cases have been filed against Jeffrey Epstein and his estate by women who say they were sexually abused and trafficked, many as minors, some allegations dating to 1985. More than 100 claims were filed and tens of millions paid out by a compensation fund set up to help his victims.
The Women’s Bar Association for the State of New York said these cases reshaped the public’s understanding of coercion and illuminated the crimes surrounding human trafficking. It was one of a number of groups to support legislation introduced by New York State Sen. James Sanders Jr. to extend the statute of limitations for civil trafficking claims from 10 to 15 years and allow for financial recovery for plaintiffs.
The law passed in 2021.
An untested statute
In Washington, advocates for victims of clergy abuse and other kinds of child sex abuse helped compel the state Legislature to extend the statute of limitations for criminal charges. In 2019, the state passed legislation that extended the statute of limitations for sex crime prosecutions to 10 years for adults and to 20 years for those over the age of 16. It also removed the deadline for minors. The statutes for civil cases remain unchanged.
Child USA, which ranks states based on their criminal and civil laws for sexual abuse, still gave Washington a 1.75 out of 5, even after these amendments, for having among the narrowest remedies for minor and adult sexual assault victims.
Lawmakers and experts in Washington say the statute of limitations has been largely untested in civil cases, and the need for reform that might make civil suits more accessible for survivors has been overlooked.
Dana Raigrodski, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, who also sits on the Washington State Supreme Court Gender and Justice Commission, said state courts haven’t tested the statute of limitations law enough to set a precedent. Yet, she says, the intent of the state’s trafficking laws are meant to be broadly interpreted in favor of victims.
While the state Criminal Profiteering Act’s statute of limitations is three years for civil cases, the time period begins when the victim could have reasonably discovered they were involved not only in a crime, but in a criminal pattern.
“If you are a survivor of trafficking, especially if you are a minor, there is so much trauma, there is so much harm, again just getting to a point where you are able to bring forth a claim” is a barrier, Raigrodski said. Because of this, “Washington courts are actually amenable to giving the statute of limitations a broader interpretation if possible.”
State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who has introduced a number of bills surrounding trafficking, said the statute of limitations for survivors should be reexamined by the legislature. There are too many barriers to reporting, including feeling safe enough to go to law enforcement.
This could be one reason there are so few cases.
Just eight civil cases for sex and labor trafficking had been filed in federal courts in Washington state as of December 2020. Nationwide, only 158 civil cases have been filed in federal courts since the laws for civil restitution first passed in 2003, according to the Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
“Part of it is a learning curve because people don’t understand just how much coercion and control happens regardless of the age, whether you are a minor or an adult, the things that are done to you,” Orwall said, “They weren’t listened to, or they weren’t believed, they felt degraded during the process. The bar is so low.”
This is among the core questions Judge Young will examine Friday. The attorneys’ arguments rest on whether legal standards around trafficking reporting are fair or fail to take into account the barriers to seeking redress.
Young is not expected to issue her decision on the arguments Friday.
Update: Young said at Friday morning’s hearing that she will issue her decision on the arguments by Jan. 20.
Ashley Hiruko: 206-574-8007 or email@example.com;
Rebecca Moss: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @rebeccakmoss.
Rebecca Moss is an investigative reporter at The Seattle Times.